By Danny Schrafel
A State Supreme Court justice has upheld the Half Hollow Hills Central School District’s vote last fall to close two elementary schools.
The ruling, issued June 5 by State Supreme Court Justice Gerard Asher, “is a vindication” of the school district’s conduct, school board President James Ptucha said Monday, but hardly a happy occasion.
“Nobody wins. Nobody’s rejoicing. Nobody’s happy,” he said. “It’s an unfortunate situation, but thank God, we can move on.”
In a Feb. 20 lawsuit, 110 school district residents, under the umbrella of Citizens Concerned for Half Hollow Hills Children (CCHC), asked the court to throw out the school board’s Oct. 28, 2013 vote to close Chestnut Hill and Forest Park elementary schools for the 2014-2015 school year in the face of declining enrollment.
They also argued the district violated the Open Meetings Law by holding a special public meeting at 7:30 a.m. Oct. 24, 2013, which the plaintiffs argued was scheduled to diminish public participation, and by going into executive session before their regularly scheduled Oct. 28, 2013 meeting.
But Asher ruled that neither act violated the law.
“Here, the record establishes that the Board often faces legitimate reasons to enter into executive session at the beginning of its regular meetings, that it had a legitimate reason to do so on Oct. 28, 2013 and that it proceeded to give public notice of the earlier start of the public meeting as soon as practicable,” Asher writes. “The record establishes that the Board did not conduct any business involving the anticipated school closings in said executive session.”
Attorney Raymond Keegan, who represents the CCHC group, said his clients are contemplating an appeal. They have 30 days to file after they receive notice from the school district that they received the judgment.
“The clients are disappointed because they know that the testimony of the board members was tainted, so they don’t believe that the decision was correct,” he said.
The two sides in particular are disagreeing over Asher’s ruling specific to his view of the district’s adherence to the Open Meetings Law.
In one portion, Asher ruled that, “while the petitioners’ contention that a more specific enunciation of the reasons for going into executive session would better serve the intent of the Open Meetings Law is correct, the record reflects that the issues discussed were appropriate” under the law.
Citing an advisory opinion in Goetschius v. Board of Education of Greenburgh Eleven Union-Free School District in 1996, Asher wrote that while “the reasonableness of conducting meetings at 7:30 a.m. is in our view questionable,” the opinion allows for exceptions based on circumstances and that the Open Meetings Law does not specify when meetings must be held, and that the district’s special 7:30 a.m. meeting was, “in essence, a continuation of the Oct. 21, 2013 work session meant to increase, rather than decrease, the participation of the residents of the school district.”
Asher also ruled that the school board did not violate the Open Meetings Law by meeting with Chestnut Hill Elementary School parents in January 2013 because it did not conduct public business or convene with a quorum of members.
In sum, the district acted “in a manner consistent with the spirit, if not the letter, of the Open Meetings Law” and denied the parents’ demand for lawyer’s fees because the petitioners “failed to establish that the Board engaged in a pattern or practice of violating the Open Meetings Law,” Asher ruled.
Keegan framed the decision as one in which the district was found to have violated the Open Meetings Law, but was allowed to close the schools anyway. Ptucha, however, said Keegan’s interpretation is “dead wrong.”
“The interpretation that we got was, ‘We understand that you may not have followed it to the letter of the law, but you followed it in the spirit of the law’,” he said.
“The board’s decision to close two schools was a well-founded decision. They did not conduct anything illegally in Executive Session and the court found no violations of the Open Meetings Law,” Half Hollow Hills School District Attorney Jack Feldman said Monday.